Beaufort County Council was right to turn down zoning that would allow intense development along the headwaters of the Okatie River at Pepper Hall.
The decision to say "no" to its Graves family owners was consistent with the county's long-range vision for the area. Saying "yes" would have been counter to more than a decade of public and private efforts to restore the tidal river to good health.
In its 2004, "greenprint" plan to guide land and development rights purchases, the county identified the "Okatie River Focus Area." Since 2001, the county has spent $20.1 million buying land or development rights involving 288 acres, including a conservation easement on 17 acres at Pepper Hall from another Graves family member. As recently as 2010, the county spent a total of $7.2 million protecting more than 95 acres in the area.
State and federal officials have studied the levels of pollutants going in the river to determine the maximum amounts it can handle and stay healthy. Results show that pollutants need to be reduced up to 50 percent in the upper reaches of the Okatie watershed.
Zoning in place today on the 142 acres in question allows construction of as many as 57 houses and 5,000 square feet of commercial space. The proposed rezoning would have allowed up to 428 houses and 1.4 million square feet of commercial space, according to county staff.
One of the arguments for the rezoning was that development already surrounds the property. But approval for much of that development predates the county's more recent efforts to limit development and its negative effects in the Okatie headwaters area.
We must be able to learn from mistakes and do better going forward.
And Graves family members have gained from the sale of property for residential and commercial development in that area.
The optimal solution from the river's standpoint would be to negotiate a sale to the county of land or development rights or some combination of the two.
At Monday's County Council meeting, Councilman Stu Rodman said, "In the very near term, we ask the Rural and Critical Lands Program, as well as the planning department to be in communication" with the Graves family.
Previous talks have not borne fruit; we hope that changes.